Sparkle, the remake of the 1976 film starring Irene Cara, is like a great song with a bad chorus. Just when it looks as if it's settling into a smooth groove, it hits a sour note.
The remake moves the time period of the story about the rise and fall of a girl singing group from the 1950s to the '60s and shifts the location to Detroit. American Idol winner Jordin Sparks takes over Cara's role as Sparkle Williams, a mousy young woman with a big voice. She and her siblings — Dolores (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) — defy their controlling mother (Whitney Houston) to chase a singing career.
Their journey is filled with grand opportunities, dangerous temptations and deep heartbreak. Director Salim Akil and writer Mara Brock Akil have given the updated version a few sharp beats that at times work, such as the shift to the home of Motown. But at other times they fall flat.
Because this is Houston's final performance, her work will be examined more than any acting she's done before. Houston was always a better singer than actor, and sadly that doesn't change with Sparkle. She has one good scene around the dinner table. The rest of her work looks tired.
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The film does show that Sparks has the kind of sparkle that will carry her far should she continue to act. The role requires her to grow as Sparkle faces each success and failure. Sparks handles the transformation while also providing a singing voice that dazzles.
The biggest surprise is the performance by Mike Epps as Satin, the smooth-talking comedian who sweeps Sister off her feet. No film work Epps has done in the past has even hinted that he had the acting ability needed to pull off such a demanding performance. His character goes from lovable to violent in a heartbeat. It's the kind of performance that should get attention at awards time.
Those two good performances suffer because the director shifts through various film styles, going from a stagnant sitcom setting to a fast-moving high-concept sequence. Salim Akil seems the most comfortable staging the musical numbers.
The changes from the original movie script give this version a stronger story. The problem is that there are so many story lines and the writers shortchange too many.
The film also suffers from comparisons to Dreamgirls, which also featured an American Idol all-star, Jennifer Hudson, in a story about the rise of a female singing group. That effort had an emotional and musical beat that was stronger.
Sparkle doesn't sparkle, but it does have some flashy moments, especially from Sparks and Epps. Even with their efforts, though, the movie proves all that glitters is not solid gold.